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Plebs row: Andrew Mitchell can’t necessarily rely on police officers’ thick skins

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So should Andrew Mitchell have been arrested and prosecuted for swearing at (or in the presence of) police outside No 10 Downing Street and allegedly calling them plebs?

Those who would love to see the stuck-up Tory toff (there, I’ve said it, and it’s on the record) doing time for his outbreak of incivility have had some difficulty finding any precedents for the offence of swearing at police officers. London Mayor, Boris Johnson, has certainly said they should be arrested, and one man is said to have been prosecuted for abusing police during the riots under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 on “causing harassment, alarm and distress”.

But riots and the day-to-day hurly burly of a Cabinet minister’s life are two different things. As matters stand, the police are unlikely to arrest  people who abuse them – however irritating the odious oik might be who is doing the abusing.

And this is as it should be. To arrest people who insult the police would be a draconian power, criminalizing most ordinary people who find encounters with the police stressful, whether after a hard day of trying to keep a faltering Government on its feet or because you are young, black and you’ve been stopped and searched for the Nth time this year.

Crucially it has generally been held that the police have pretty thick skins and aren’t going to be moved to strike a man who insults them (as in “conduct likely to breach the peace” – see “Blemishing the peace” below) or feel harassment, alarm and distress – even when insulted by a here today, gone tomorrow member of Cabinet who thinks the world should jump to his every order. After all, most police are likely to hear plenty of this sort of thing – not least in their own canteens.

The case to look at is Harvey v DPP (2011) in which Denzel Harvey was one of several men being searched for cannabis. “Mr Harvey objected and said, ‘Fuck this, man, I ain’t been smoking nothing’. PC Challis told him that if he continued to swear he would be arrested for an offence under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. PC Challis searched the appellant but found no drugs, whereupon the appellant said, ‘Told you, you won’t find fuck all’.” Other searches proceeded and names were taken, then the officer “asked the appellant if he had a middle name and the appellant replied, ‘No, I’ve already fucking told you so’. The officer arrested Mr Harvey for the offence under section 5.” He was convicted and fined £50. Read the rest of this entry

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